AMERICANS HAVE DEBATED a lot about Iraq: whether the war was justified, whether the administration lied about Iraq's weapons programs, whether sufficient postwar planning was done, and whether the coalition, the United Nations or the Iraqis themselves should be put in charge of reconstruction. In short, we have debated virtually every topic possible--with scant attention to the one most relevant to what is happening daily on the ground there: Does the United States have the right military strategy in place to defeat what its own generals admit is an increasingly sophisticated insurgency?

It's an urgent question, because American servicemen and women--along with cooperating Iraqis--are coming under attack virtually every day. The number killed and wounded is rising. Yet the debate has focused on whether we have enough troops, rather than whether we have the right forces, in the right places, using the right stratagems to defeat the amalgam of hard-core Baathists, Iraqi opportunists and radical Islamists from outside the country who continue to wage unconventional war against the U.S.-led occupation. Although the Bush administration can rightly point to successes in reconstructing Iraq since Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled, the fact remains that unless the security situation in Iraq is brought under control and the insurgency there decisively defeated, those successes can never be made permanent and the president's larger hopes for a stable, democratic Iraq will never be fulfilled.

Developing and executing a successful counterinsurgency strategy for Iraq is a challenge, to be sure, but far from an insurmountable one.

For one thing, the conditions for a successful American counterinsurgency campaign are good. The vast majority of Iraq is not "a sea" in which insurgents can hide and find ready support. The de facto American defense of Iraqi Kurdistan over the past decade has created an increasingly free and stable northern Iraq. And the war itself has liberated the Shiite "silent majority." This long-repressed community and its mainstream leaders have, contrary to many predictions, proven to be relatively reliable partners, despite bombed mosques, assassinated imams and the machinations of radical clerics such as Moqtada Sadr. Whatever grievances Iraq's Shiites, Kurds and other repressed minorities have among themselves or with the occupying authority, there is no sign that these disputes are either metastasizing or bringing those groups together with the Sunni and Islamist guerrillas. In short, the good news is that the insurgency is largely localized in the Sunni regions and it appears the insurgents are few in number.

Our foes in Iraq also lack a leader to rally around. There is no Mao Zedong, no Emilio Aguinaldo capable of summoning citywide, let alone nationwide, support. Saddam Hussein is too discredited even among Iraqis to become a hero to ordinary people there.

On the military side, U.S. post-combat stability operations in Iraq have made progress. After the immediate postwar pause, U.S. and British forces regained the initiative with a series of sweeps--operations such as Peninsula Strike, Planet X, Desert Scorpion, Sidewinder and Soda Mountain--that dealt heavy blows to the reorganizing Baathists in May, June and July. Other military operations struck the camps of foreign terrorist organizations. In all, thousands of suspects were detained and large arms caches seized.

Yet the Bush administration can't rest easy. Military sweeps and follow-up strikes by special forces are not enough for a successful counterinsurgency campaign. The insurgents have plenty of guns and more than enough money to pay people to attack a wide variety of targets--not just Americans, but Iraqis or anyone else working to create a different future for Iraq.

Moreover, to be effective, these military operations require precise intelligence--which commanders themselves say is in short supply. Without that intelligence, sweeps apply a broad military brush to a discrete set of adversaries. Even with the best of planning, they may result in arrests and casualties of non-belligerents, potentially spreading opposition to the United States instead of marginalizing it. Right now, we are not facing a full-blown Sunni ethnic rebellion. The majority of Sunnis in the Baathist-dominated areas are probably trying their best to keep their heads down, fearing both the insurgents in their midst and the American military's incredible firepower. The last thing we want is a backlash among these fence-sitting Sunnis, seeking revenge for what they perceive to be the indiscriminate application of U.S. military power.

As currently employed in Iraq, the American military can prevent the insurgents from winning. But the insurgents do not have to win; they simply have to avoid losing. Their goal is not to change the facts on the ground as much as to change American perceptions of the viability of the president's vision for Iraq. That country's rejectionists are aiming at what they perceive to be the greatest U.S. weakness: sensitivity to public opinion, especially with a potentially bitter presidential campaign looming. Hence, a successful counterinsurgency strategy must aim to win, and not just to hold on.

WINNING IS A POLITICAL MATTER as well as a military one. The commitment of Iraqis to democratizing their country is based upon the belief that coalition forces will make it safe to conduct this unprecedented experiment. For them, an end to Hussein's regime must also mean an end to fear. If they don't see the coalition winning decisively against the insurgents, they will start planning for their own security by creating or expanding their own existing militias. If that happens, a stable, unified Iraq might become a very distant goal indeed.

Talk of counterinsurgency strategies inevitably summons up the trauma of Vietnam. It tends to paralyze analysis by turning every American small war into a replay of Vietnam and every casualty into a quagmire. But it shouldn't. Even in Vietnam, classic counterinsurgency strategies and tactics proved successful--when given time and effort. There is no reason to believe they cannot work in Iraq where the insurgency problem is not as large or difficult, where there is no country like North Vietnam providing major assistance to guerrillas.

Make no mistake: The United States knows how to fight such wars. It even has a how-to guide--the Marine Corps' Small Wars Manual, a classic study first published in 1940. The manual emphasizes the difficulty of distinguishing what is strictly military from what is political in such struggles. It recognizes that "the initial problem is to restore peace," but also that "there may be many economic and social factors" involved, and that "the efforts of the different agencies"--meaning not just elements of the American government but "local government and the civil population"--"must be cooperative and coordinated to the attainment of the common end."

These are hardly revelations. But the American military experience distilled in the Small Wars Manual was largely forgotten in Vietnam. Instead, the United States pursued the big-unit, search-and-destroy approach of Gen. William Westmoreland that many officers knew could not prevail. While Marine Gen. Victor "Brute" Krulak pushed for a pacification strategy, and the so-called COORDS program--for Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support--was the kind of coordinated all-agency effort envisioned in the Small Wars Manual, the Army's "war of attrition" won out over traditional counterinsurgency strategy.

CAN SUCH A STRATEGY WORK IN IRAQ? Yes, if applied correctly. One lesson: Pacification and counterinsurgency campaigns are manpower-intensive. As military analyst Andrew Krepinevich argued in "The Army and Vietnam"--yet another part of the counterinsurgency canon--the effort "should be organized primarily around light infantry units" that must "patrol intensively in and around populated areas," interposing themselves between insurgents and the people.

Active patrolling is also essential for developing the human intelligence needed to distinguish the good from the bad. Only when pacification of a given area is well underway will the military get the human intelligence needed for larger sweeps and raids. Until local residents believe they will be secure over the long term, they will not be forthcoming with information.

In Iraq, that would mean that coalition forces, assisted by newly trained Iraqi police and soldiers, would have to swamp a given area in order to root out insurgents and their supporting infrastructure. In doing so, coalition forces would provide a shield behind which reconstruction can take place. To win the "hearts and minds" of the uncommitted Iraqis, security, political and economic reconstruction must go hand in hand.

Once a particular city or area had been pacified, the military and reconstruction teams could move on to the next hot spot, leaving behind adequate local Iraqi forces, with small teams from U.S. special forces, to maintain security. Gradually, whole regions would come under control and the "safe havens" for the insurgents would dry up. Like oil drops that strike a cloth, security would seep out to cover a wider and wider area.

However, a real counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq entails risks. It would concentrate forces in the Sunni regions that are the hot spots. Rather than reducing the U.S. presence, it might require putting an even greater American face on the war in those places. That could mean that, in the short term, the Pentagon might have to put on hold its plans to reduce the number of troops in Iraq to lessen the burden on the Army. The Marine Corps also might need to send fresh units back into Iraq.

A successful counterinsurgency campaign also would require American ground forces to carry out tasks and operations that today's "transforming" military, which increasingly is trading manpower for precision firepower, finds hard to perform. As one Army colonel in Iraq recently said to a New York Times reporter: "We are not trained to fight a war like this. We're training to fight an army face to face, to engage in direct combat, an enemy we can see." But that's not the kind of enemy we now face in Iraq.

Yet these risks pale in comparison with the risk of failure to defeat the insurgency in Iraq. Dissatisfied with the pace of Iraq's reconstruction, President Bush has recently given his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, responsibility for overseeing that effort. But he cannot stop there. He should ask whether his Pentagon has a plan to win the conflict.

Tom Donnelly is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Gary Schmitt is executive director of the Project for the New American Century, a Washington-based think tank.

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